Gearing up: The 2012 Hawaii Statewide Cupping Competition

It has been a long time since anything was posted, here.  Forgive me, please, faithful readers.  I missed several things worth writing back (like the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival and the new Kona Barista Jam) but I just couldn't make writing about them a priority.  In the last few months, I’ve been writing plenty, though.  If you’re interested in catching up on my words, you can read the Barista Magazine article, the Fresh Cup article, and The Honolulu Weekly article.  I’m also working on a much bigger writing project which has taken up a good chunk of my time.  As it gets closer to completion, I’ll share more information about it.  For now, let's talk cupping competitions.

When last I posted (July), I wrote a critical piece about how the 2011 Hawaii Statewide Cupping Competition results were handled.  After the next board meeting, the Hawaii Coffee Association (HCA) board created a committee to reexamine the operation of the competition and the sharing of the results.  (No, I don’t think my post had much to do with that.)  While I was not invited to be a committee member, I was asked by one of the committee members to, unofficially, to share my thoughts.

This week, the HCA announced the 2012 competition and sent out submission forms.  Included in the announcement was a list of several new rules that significantly change the competition and the presentation of results.  The new format aligns very well with the HCA’s statement of purpose for the competition while offering a redesign that caters to both large and small producers.  I congratulate the committee for coming up with a new and exciting!  Let’s review the changes.

1. Only 3 pounds of each coffee sample need to be submitted and Department of Agriculture certification is not required.  I suspect that dropping the certification requirement was chosen to increase the number of entrants as well as cope with the undersupply of government workers who are doing the actual certifying (there’s currently a huge backlog on the Big Island).  While this sounds innocent enough, it may cause some unintended consequences (more on this later).

2. Each TMK (tax map key) is allowed 3 entries (previously it was just 1).  Now, a farmer can submit more than one sample from an individual farm.  Effectively, this means one farm can submit different varieties or cherry processing techniques or whatever.  Consequently, more coffees will pass by the cupping panel (all of whom are potential buyers) and a greater range of profiles will be exhibited. 

3. Each sample must be submitted to either of the two new divisions: commercial or creative.  The distinction is that a farmer must have at least 300 pounds of green bean to sell to enter the commercial division and less than that to be in the creative division.  This rule has two purposes.  One, it helps the larger farms, who can’t necessarily coddle their coffee too much, compete against the smaller farms.  Second, it encourages creativity and exploration on a farmer’s part (whether they are large or small) to create a very interesting coffee without having to have a good deal of it on hand to sell.  As one purpose of the competition is to help market Hawaiian coffees, this helps guide buyers to quantities of coffee they may be interested in. 

The potential consequence from not requiring certification shows up here.  When more than 10 pounds of green coffee are sent outside the coffee’s originating district, they must be certified.  To pass certification, coffees must be sized, defects removed, and the coffee must attain a basic cupping approval.  The level at which these conditions are met determines the final grade.  If competition coffees are not certified first, then the cuppers may taste a somewhat different coffee than the one that will be eventually be certified.  While one hopes that sizing and cleaning the coffee will only improve quality, this doesn’t always happen.  I’m not convinced this is a problem at all but it is something for us to think about.

4. Awards will be given to the top 3 winners in each certification district (a.k.a. growing region) for districts with at least 6 entries (sorry Kauai, Molokai, and Oahu!).  Also, the top 10 winners in each division will ranked and listed.

5. A ranking of all the coffees that score an 80 or higher will be released.  Farmers have the option of not having their score released but they must choose this when submitting their coffee, not after the score is generated.  This is a novel rule for any competition, as far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong, please!).  Potentially, every coffee entered could be ranked and the score available to the public.  This is far more transparency than I would ever have suggested but I’m delighted to see it.  I’ll be very interested to see how many farmers opt-out of having their score shown. 

Generally, I am quite pleased with the new rules and I’m eager to see how the competition fares this year.  There are only two additional changes I would have liked to have seen.  Perhaps they can be considered for the 2013 competition.

First, I’d like the HCA to release a definition of coffee quality for the competition.  Every competition works with a pre-defined definition.  In this case, it is one determined by the SCAA scoring sheet and the cuppers using it.  While farmers should know what this definition is, many do not.  Within the submission packet, a brief explanation should be included so that farmers better understand what is going on and, hopefully, have a sense of how well their coffee is likely do.

Second, I’d like to see local cuppers be on the judging panel.  There are two reasons for this.  One, having more judges is always better from a statistical sense.  There are many good cuppers in the state who for either no or little cost, would be happy to help judge the coffees.  Why limit the opportunity to boost the quality of your data because of a fear of bias? (Personally, I don’t think local bias a legitimate concern.)  Second, some local cuppers are approached by buyers interested in Hawaiian coffee.  It makes sense that these cuppers have a strong understanding of what is available in the state so that they can best help the industry.  Disqualifier: it is true that I’m qualified to cup in such a competition and I’d love to be at the table.  Nonetheless, I still support the use of local cuppers even if I weren’t able or permitted to judge.

I commend the efforts of the committee and the HCA board for these new rules.  I think they enrich the competition a great deal.  I look forward to this new format and am excited to see the results in late July!

If you need or are interested in the submission forms or the associated introductory letter, please email me.  I'm happy to send them to you!

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